New research released in the journal Stem Cell Reports suggests that stem cell therapy may be the key to treating patients with multiple sclerosis (MS). Currently, there are few medically-accepted treatments for MS, and these only help with symptoms in the early stages of the progressive neurological disorder. The new research, however, shows that stem cells may actually help in reversing the progression of this disease.
Multiple sclerosis is thought to be an auto-immune disease in which the bodies immune system attacks the myelin sheath around nerve fibres. This myelin, a fatty substance that is vital for proper nerve function, also protects the nerves, but does not readily grow back following loss. As a result of this progressive demyelination in MS, patients begin to lose sensory abilities, such as physical sensation and vision, while experiencing other problems such as difficulty walking fatigue and pain.
Using a mouse model of MS, in which animals had been provided with a virus known to destroy the myelin within the spinal cord, the research team found that stem cell injections were able to reduce the motor problems exhibited by these animals and gave them the ability to walk within just two weeks. This amazing recovery was likely due to the changes in the immune system that the scientists were able to note, such as reduced inflammation in the central nervous system and even a regrowth of myelin in the spinal cord that was seen six months following treatment. What interested the researchers was that these beneficial effects occurred despite the complete rejection of the stem cells after only one week following the initial injection.
The authors believe that this rapid and sustained recovery was initiated by specific proteins released by the stem cells. These proteins are known to modulate the activity of the immune system, and were found to be highly expressed by the stem cells. To support this idea, some mice were given antibodies to prevent these proteins from working, and this prevented their immune system from responding to the therapy.
Currently, there is no known cause of MS, and available treatments only affect the early stages of this disease. Antiviral treatment is the most common, and helps reduce the frequency of attacks, but ultimately does not halt the progression of the disease. Given the lack of adequate medicine, many patients suffering from MS have experimented with alternative medicines, including medical marijuana, yoga, acupuncture and other dietary supplements. One more controversial therapy is known as “liberation treatment.” Pioneered by Dr. Zamboni, this treatment surgically widened the veins in the neck, but recent research has suggested that the theory behind this procedure is lacking any evidence.
Over 2.3 million people world-wide suffer from MS, with the highest rates of this disease occurring in northern Europe and North America. It is believed that approximately 400,000 Americans are affected, while 100,000 Canadians suffer from MS, giving Canada the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of MS in the world. If the current study can be replicated, the possibility of forthcoming human trials arises, and for many, not a moment too soon. For the millions of people suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, treatment with stem cells may hold the key to a symptom-free future.
By Bryan A. Jones